Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Retrieved Lillian Burnley poems

At last count, I do my work on three computers. Yes, tres confusing. I'm upstairs in the Study working on my desktop where the bulk of my writing resides, impossible to locate all the poems. Must be a hundred or more. I sat here for hours reading the contents of my documents, trying to find my Mrs Burnley poems.

I'm still missing one, a story she told me about a "contemporary" of her son's, an acquaintance, who jumped to his death off a bridge. Gee, lemme take one more quick look.

OMG! I found it. I entered the word "bridge" in the search engine and up she came.

I've found a couple which I'll print below. Here's the hastily composed one for her retirement party. I asked the M C if I could read it and she said Yes. I can't remember who that might have been.

At the party I made the acquaintance of state rep Tom Murt and wangled my way to sitting next to him. I always try to sit next to an interesting person and learn their story. What a story he had, deployed to Iraq in his early 40s, a war we should never have entered, this Republican confided to me.

Is it too much to ask my readers to read these four poems? Stories, really. They're called narratives.


On the retirement of Lillian Burnley

I shall miss you
Lillian Burnley
more than you'll know.

Our quick chats
squeezed between
mountains of work

Your colorful blouses:
large flowers blooming across
your body as if clinging
forever to the one
they love most

The way you spoke so kindly to your staff
the way you refused to take credit
for the greatness of the library
though really it was yours.

When I saw your rock as paperweight
I knew we were kindred souls
You are that rock.

They can hire a million librarians.
Graduates from famous universities
the Librarian of Congress himself
But nowhere will they find another
you, another Lillian,

The only woman who
when I call you on the phone
answers as if she were
expecting my call
all along.

- Ruth Z. Deming
March 9, 2007
Williamson’s Restaurant


They said Mrs. Burnley would be along soon
after she finished helping the elderly gentleman find
a large-print biography of Winston Churchill

I saw them in the stacks, their heads together,
lifting one book, then another, and putting them
back on the shelf, like the slow peal of bells.

While waiting for Mrs. Burnley, I saw a
book lying on a table that no one was sitting at.
“The Chinese Way,” it read. From my perch near
the reference desk, where I intended to stay
first in line, I stretched my arm over to the
table and slid off the book.

I hadn’t much time to learn about Chinese ways.
Mrs. Burnley could return at any moment.
So I started reading as fast as I could about
a concept called Qi. It had something to do with
balance but I couldn’t pay attention because I
was arrested by those two letters – the Q and the i.

I am talking here about looks
and looks only, not the deeper meaning of things:
the tall rounded Q with the tail of a cat – how suddenly
beautiful it looked to me now – with the i
standing in its shadow.

I snapped my mind back to book,
but, alas, it was too late.
A mother and child were coming my way,
coming, it seemed, to stand behind me at the reference desk,
I was shaking with fear that my sense of peace
would be violated by unsyncopated noise.

But there was no noise at all. It was all done in silence,
the mother and child locked in that eternal power
struggle that dominates the universe.

The child’s knees stiffened in disobedience as the mother
dragged her across the floor like a mule a plow.

At the last moment – glory be to God! – they veered toward
the children’s videos – and I stared with everlasting gratitude
at the stubby pencils placed there for the convenience
of the patrons.

“I’m so sorry to keep you waiting,” said Mrs. Burnley,
as she hunched up her skirt. She is a remarkable woman,
a woman with dangling eyeglasses and black nurse’s shoes
that go "squoosh,"
the only woman, who, when you call to find out the
capital of North Carolina, answers the phone as if
she were expecting your call all along.


May I say Mrs Jackson that you shall be missed
that is what the greeting cards say anyway
You shall be missed.

I however shall not say that
Forgive me.

Instead I hugged you when you told me
you were leaving
your shoulders heaving

I came round to your side of the desk

and instead of grasping your knees and
kissing your sore water-logged feet
put my small thin arm around your
corpulant shoulders
saying, It’ll never be the same
without you
I will never be the same without you.

The proof of her departure
was mounting
a horse nearing the finish line
rolling on the gravel of the race track
ready to be put out to pasture
You had lost, in bygone days, your stance as thoroughbred.

I watched in silent horror as the clues
and tried not to look:
magnified computer screen
orthopedic shoes
and now some contraption
the final indignation
a knee-high blue boot

Once at a program you hosted
I sat in the back
and imagined you as you once were
a girl
with a beautiful face
opulent breasts
that enveloped three children
eyes big as the sun

Not as you were that day
behind the podium
a full-jowled diabetic
tethered four times a week
to a machine where
people lost the battle in the wintertime
gallant Napoleons meeting
their Waterloo,
gauze bandages
littering your
bruised arms
meaty arms
dripping like the silk
of an empress's dress

You believe in an afterlife
We are not descended
from apes
but made of immortal fire
in the image
of our Lonesome Creator
who needs us to keep Him warm

Long ago
Your God sent you Bob
to row you across your
sea of dreams
till death do you part

never dreaming
that your keenest sense
O Librarian
would become
your long swiveling
Buddah ears.


On Fridays, Mrs. Burnley sits in her chair with arms
at her desk in the library while
I, a disciple, wait for orders on the other side.
We are talking about tragedies
about terrible things that befall people -
slowly: like the inching in of a disease
or quickly: like a tree smashing your roof.

Now Mrs. Burnley tells of a suicide
suffered by a friend of her son's.
"It is something," she says,
"to lose a con-tem-po-rary."

Yes, he was dying from Hodgkins,
married only two years, I think;
two years and
didn't want to be a burden.

Can you blame him?

So he drove to Allentown and
dove off a bridge, a good way to go,
we presume,

But, alas, the bridge wasn't high enough,
Not one of the gigantic ones,
this was Allentown, you see,
a small city with small bridges.

So he dove
and lived
not for long,
but long enough.

"Why?" I asked Mrs. Burnley,
"why in God's name didn't he
drive further -
to Pittsburgh
the City of Three Rivers -
Surely the bridges are higher in Pittsburgh!”

Then stood on top,
gazed at the Steel Town and the
lit-up tall buildings,
thought of his wife's hair
her wedding eyes
the kids they'd never bear.

He could've dove at night
when the buildings were all lit up,
his figure would be just a
piece of coal
falling into the river below
a piece of coal dust
the color of his wife's eyes
falling onto one of the three rivers,
O, Widow that I am.

Now, after I published the Bridge Poem on my blog, a woman killed herself by jumping off a bridge in England. Oh-oh, I thought, I better take it off the Internet so no one gets any ideas.

So, don't get any ideas, you hear?

1 comment:

  1. Oh very nice! Did she ever get to see these poems? I love what they say, how they say it and mostly the stories not told that lie behind the words and at which you hint or give us a taste. She must have made quite an impression for you to have written four poems in tribute to her.

    Thanks so much for sharing these.